It is difficult to utter your frustrations if a veil seals your lips. Today the yashmak covers the face of Arab women only in rare cases. Yet paradoxically, the more the West comes to terms with the gains of modern feminism, and waxes indignant at the ‘humiliations’ to which Arab women are subjected, the less do women in the Arab world itself open their mouths. It was not always thus. Arab history has known women who revolted against their fate and scandalized their time. It has witnessed movements which provoked passions and polemics for years on end, pitting modernists against traditionalists on the front pages of a flourishing women’s press. But today, as the streets of Cairo and Beirut fill once again with women shrouded in black, seeking the respectability of a cloak for their corporeal existence, and fundamentalism wages a triumphant campaign to fix their identity in the mould of religious austerity, many Arab feminists and socialists defend themselves only very timidly against the tide. The principal reactions to it have been accommodation, or consolation in a past that has had its glories, but has
The fate of Arab women has been set by a historical context in which Islam has been an all-encompassing, dominating reality. According to Islamic doctrine, the individual can only find peace and harmony by living the daily practices of the Muslim as a member of the Umma, the community of the faithful. The rules of conduct laid down by the Prophet—the human messenger of Allah—must be obeyed by both men and women, in bodily norms and social roles alike. In this sense Islam has always been not only a code of belief but a system of identity—perhaps the nearest thing to a ‘nationality’ before nations or nationalism existed anywhere in the world. The believer was akin to a citizen in the Umma, for to belong to the community it was not enough simply to have faith in the Messenger of God, it was necessary to defend the institutions of the state and the customs of the society which it regulated. Muslim identity meant a total adhesion to a way of life and a conception of the spirit that were indissociable from each other. Mohammed himself had welded the bond between them when he founded a state to realize a creed.
The all-encompassing nature of this belonging has never been lived as a submission by Muslims. On the contrary, its very completeness has been the token of its absolute reality and truth. The harmony of its order gave security. Opposition could only define itself as a difference within this politico-spiritual cosmos. The early conquests and later triumphs of Islam established a continuity across centuries that came to form a kind of permanent, natural substratum in the Muslim unconscious. It was only with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of new nation states in the twentieth century that the seamless fabric of Muslim identity started to unravel. Ever since, the Arab world has been torn by an obsessive tension between the claims of the Islamic Umma and the allegiances due to the various Arab states. No sooner has the Muslim component of Arab identity appeared to recede, than it has surged forth once again, more assertive and militant than ever. Modern secular politics, from Nasser to the Communist parties, have been able to do no more than play with the reality of this two-fold religio-national consciousness. It has been all too easy to conflate the imperialist and the infidel (Kufar), and to mobilize the masses to avenge the humiliations inflicted by Western civilization on Islamic identity. It is much more difficult to summon them to fight imperialism as a form of the capitalist mode of production. In this setting, what better symbol of cultural continuity than the privacy of women, refuge par excellence of traditional values that the old colonialism could not reach and the new capitalism must not touch? The rigidity of the statute of women in the family in the Arab world has been the innermost asylum of Arabo-Muslim identity.
In one sense Islam has never underestimated woman. The notion of a Weaker Sex is foreign to it: no Arabic translation exists for the expression (Gentle Sex was tried but soon abandoned). The Muslim tradition, one might say, rather reveals an anxiety about women, and the strength of
The Muslim attitude to sexuality is consequently a far cry from the Christian. Christian piety traditionally enjoined sexual abstinence—matrimony itself being no more than a pis-aller for the Pauline tradition. For Islam, on the contrary, sexuality must be satisfied if the social harmony of the Umma is to be realized. Muslim culture lacks any notion that women prefer to sublimate their sexuality, or merely undergo it in the interests of procreation. Precisely for that reason Islam confines their movements to spaces that men can control. If both man and woman are positively sexed (the Muslim paradise is a purlieu of eternal carnal pleasure), women must be subdued so that man can exercise his promiscuity within a legal framework sanctioned by the state. Unlike the Western tradition in which patriarchy and puritanism fused in an oppressive synthesis at the expense of women, here patriarchy was contradictorily hedonist in its basic convictions. An Arab proverb expresses its underlying outlook: ‘Wherever a man and a woman find